Time Running out for OAS on Venezuelan Crisis

Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro, right, speaks with Argentinian Permanent Representative Juan José Arcuri at the OAS Permanent Council. Washington, DC, April 3, 2017. (Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)

On May 31, the foreign ministers and representatives of 34 members of the Organization of American States (OAS) held a meeting aimed at issuing a roadmap for an international engagement with the Venezuelan crisis. Despite the high expectations, the states failed to agree on a common plan and the meeting ended with no final declaration. The efforts to establish an international action in Venezuela remain locked in a stalemate. OAS member states and the organization’s secretary general will need a change of approach if they want to deliver a common action plan at their next General Assembly, in Cancun, Mexico, on June 19.

Any analysis of OAS action must recognize that the current Venezuelan crisis is by far the most complicated case the organization has had to deal with this millennium. First, the crisis over Venezuela’s democracy is entangled with a deep economic, social and, for the time being, humanitarian crisis. The conflation of these different issues makes “crisis management” a daunting task. Second, the crisis of democracy is being provoked by a democratically elected government, which is the achilles heel of OAS’s democracy protection instruments, which are mostly tailored to act when coups are carried out against democratically elected governments. This translates into a very tangible problem: The OAS is seeking to act without the consent of the affected government of Venezuela, which, in an unprecedented action, has initiated procedures to withdraw from the organization. Last but not the least of the challenges is Venezuela’s size and relative power in the region.

Below, I will examine the current stalemate within the OAS in more detail and provide suggestions to move forward. As with any other international organization, the OAS is not a monolithic structure, but a set of organs with different competencies and interests. At a minimum, separate attention should be paid to the member states on the one hand, and the secretary general on the other. What the OAS does or does not do, is the result of the interplay between these two sets of actors.

The Member States: OAS-14 vs. the Caribbean States

As far as the member states, there are basically three distinct groups at present. A first small group of countries stands against any active involvement of the OAS in Venezuela because of intergovernmental friendship with the government of President Nicolás Maduro. This group consists of Bolivia, Nicaragua, and to a certain extent El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, and will most likely not be part of a common action plan. Hence, it is better to focus on the other two larger groups, which together could reach the two-thirds of affirmative votes needed for agreeing on a common plan.

The second group is made up by 14 countries, including South and Central American states plus Mexico, the United States, and Canada and represents the majority of the population of the Americas. The group of 14 or OAS-14 stands for an active involvement of the OAS in Venezuela through a mediation initiative, but also a condemnation of the rupture of the democratic order in Venezuela. The third group is made up of the Caribbean states (12 small English-speaking states, plus Haiti and Suriname), which, broadly speaking, advocate for less active involvement, dependent on the consent of the Venezuelan government. They avoid officially condemning the government based on a strict interpretation of the non-interference principle, and motivated by the strong economic ties they maintain with Venezuela.

For the time being, the differences between the OAS-14 and the Caribbean bloc is what is keeping the OAS in gridlock. But these differences are not insurmountable. Looking at their respective proposals, they seem ones of formality rather than substance. The difficulty lies in convincing the Caribbean states to give up a proposal already agreed upon by the heads of government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Some countries (Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Santa Lucia, and Belize) are closer to the OAS-14 position and worked actively on that proposal. However, they may be afraid of being accused of breaking Caribbean unity. The OAS-14 will need to persuade the entirety (or at least most members) of CARICOM to come on board.

The Secretary General: Jeopardizing Mediation

The OAS secretary general, the Uruguayan Luís Almagro, has played a key role in bringing the Venezuelan crisis before the organization. Almagro is the first OAS secretary general to make active use of the limited competencies conferred to his office by the organization’s legal provisions. In June 2016, he invoked the Interamerican Democratic Charter (Art. 20) and thus constrained member states to discuss the situation of Venezuela despite the opposition of some governments including, of course, Venezuela itself.

This was an unprecedented action and Almagro deserves credit for it. However, more recently the secretary general has contributed to the current stalemate. He has conflated the struggle for an active engagement of OAS in the Venezuelan crisis with the struggle for regime change in the country. By struggling for the latter, Almagro has become an international advocate and spokesperson of the domestic political opposition to Maduro’s government. Not surprisingly, this undermines his office’s legitimacy and prevents him becoming an effective mediator in the crisis. More importantly, the secretary general’s advocacy for regime change risks making any mediation whatsoever de facto impossible, inasmuch as the government has no incentive to sit and negotiate.

What Could the OAS Do?

Time is running out. With more than 60 deaths in the last two months of protests, the risk for Venezuela to fall into a spiral of violence is high. If this happens, the OAS has no instruments to intervene, and the situation could require the action of other international actors. Assuming that mediation is still possible and desirable, there appear to be two components of a strategy the OAS should consider at the next General Assembly.

First, for the OAS-14 to get the Caribbean states on board it is necessary to disentangle the economic, social, and humanitarian aspect of the crisis from the democracy and rule of law aspects. This can be done through a division of labor between the member states and the secretary general. In order to address the humanitarian crisis, the member states should work on a plan focused on a mediation strategy and providing humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan people. Caribbean states will surely be willing to participate and contribute to this ostensibly positive agenda. Simultaneously, in order to preserve the OAS commitment to democracy, the secretary general should continue with the condemnation of the antidemocratic behavior of the Maduro government.

Second, in order to persuade the Venezuelan government to sit and negotiate within a mediation framework, the OAS-14 must disentangle their proposed actions from the demands of the Venezuelan domestic opposition. Regime change can be a possible final outcome, but cannot by any means be the starting point and objective of a mediation process in which both government and opposition must negotiate in good faith. This means that the OAS-14 should instruct the secretary general to discontinue, or at least moderate, his engagement with individuals and political forces of the opposition.

If the OAS does not work out a common plan of action soon, it will become an impotent observer of the progressive deterioration of the political and social order, thus joining other Latin American regional groupings such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) or the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). This would be a serious blow to multilateralism and regionalism in the Western Hemisphere. If the OAS manages to use the next General Assembly to bring the Caribbean states on board, it could reassert its role as an important regional player and mediator, as it did during the Peruvian crisis of 16 years ago, when it contributed to steering the country from an authoritarian regime towards democracy.

Stefano Palestini is a Chilean political scientist and sociologist. He researches the role of regional organizations in democracy promotion and development at the Free University of Berlin.